David Thorpe of ESPN Insider recently wrote a piece (subscription required) discussing the key factors for various contenders in order to prevent the Miami Heat from taking home another title next season.
The three areas that Mr. Thorpe focused on in his piece were rim protection, elite three-point shooting and elite defense.
With that being said, let's see how the Chicago Bulls stack up in these categories.
One of the reasons why the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs pushed the Heat to the brink of elimination was because both teams have big men in Tim Duncan and Roy Hibbert, who patrol the paint effectively.
Although the Bulls were eliminated by the Heat in this year's playoffs, they actually measure up favorably in this area.
Let's start with Joakim Noah. While most of the talk from this past season has centered around his career highs in points (11.9), rebounds (11.1) and assists (4.0), he also recorded two blocked shots and one steal per contest, which were also career highs.
If anyone doubts Noah's ability to turn away shots, the above video, in which he recorded 11 blocks against the Philadelphia 76ers, speaks for itself.
Taj Gibson is another defensive presence on the Bulls roster. While his offensive game is still a work in progress, defense continues to be one of his strong suits.
A knee injury limited his effectiveness during the second half of the season, but I expect him to bounce back and be a major force in the paint again for Chicago in 2013-14.
Elite Three-Point Shooting
The Bulls were tied for 20th in three-point shooting last season, converting 35 percent of their attempts from beyond the arc.
The acquisition of Mike Dunleavy should help the Bulls improve in this area to an extent.
According to Mike Prada of SB Nation, Dunleavy's 43 percent shooting from beyond the arc in 2012-13 only tells a small part of how he can punish the opposition from the perimeter. Dunleavy also shot 45 percent from the field on spot-up three-pointers, 45 percent from beyond the arc coming off screens and a remarkable 48 percent from three-point range in transition.
Jimmy Butler also proved to be a capable shooter from distance, connecting on 38 percent of his three-point shot attempts during the season and a remarkable 40 percent during the postseason. Whether or not he can continue that trend as a starter next season remains to be seen.
Both Tony Snell (12.5 points, 39 percent three-pointers) and Erik Murphy (12.2 points, 45 percent three-pointers) bring respectable three-point shooting to the team, but it is not certain that either player will see significant playing time as Tom Thibodeau does not make it a habit to give rookies a ton of minutes.
It would be unrealistic to rate the Bulls as "elite" in this category, but the potential is there for them to be noticeably better than they were a year ago.
This is definitely an area where the Bulls have shined under Tom Thibodeau over the past three seasons.
In 2012-13, Chicago gave up just 92.9 points per game (per ESPN), which was the third fewest in the league, thus proving that this team is capable of playing great defense even when things are not going well offensively.
In addition to that, the Bulls have a reputation for making life difficult for opposing teams by making them work for every basket.
This fact is evident by LeBron James stating that the Game 5 win over Chicago in the Eastern Conference Semifinals was probably the toughest close-out game of his career (per Brett Pollakoff of probasketball.com).
Based on that, it is safe to say that the Bulls will be an even better team defensively with a full complement of players in 2013-14.
In the final analysis, the Heat are the top team in the Eastern Conference until someone can beat them in a playoff series.
However, if Derrick Rose returns to MVP form and everyone is healthy when the playoffs roll around, the Bulls have a legitimate shot at ending the Heat's bid for a third straight title.
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